I had a writing teacher who used to make us write an entire short scene using only one-syllable words. It was a painful, but eye-opening, process. Gone was the opportunity to obfuscate with complex, mellifluous language. No opportunities to expound in excruciating detail about narrative omniscience and… well, you get the idea. Big words hide important concepts, belabor the point, show your lack of confidence, and alienate or annoy your audience. When you aren’t allowed to hide behind big vocabulary words and clever metaphorical turns of phrase, your writing becomes less about showing what you know and more about sharing a good idea with your audience. That’s what the Web is all about.
Using spare and focused language isn’t about “dumbing down” or over simplifying a complex idea. It’s about knowing your work so well, you don’t need to dress it up in any other way. I’ll call upon my old buddies Strunk & White and their classic Elements of Style to shed a little light (I almost wrote illumination, but I caught myself!). While some people think the old grammar guide is a bit long in the tooth, there are core habits Web writers should take away from it. These are the most helpful:
1. Omit needless words.
This is akin to the “location, location, location” mantra of real estate. In writing, less is more. Another thing my writing instructor always had us do was take our final draft of anything, and go back to it and eliminate 100 words. It didn’t matter if we thought it was perfect, we had to cut 100 words from the text. Once you recognize a few of the most common areas of bloat, this gets really easy. For example, let’s take that sentence I just wrote:
“Once you recognize a few of the most common areas of bloat, this gets really easy.”
Let’s remove some needless words.
“Once you recognize common areas of bloat, this gets easy.”
Think about the words that are doing the heavy lifting and the ones that are just hanging around trying to look good in their workout outfits. Think of it this way: your Web users have limited time and focus. Respect their time by speaking your mind, without preamble or hedging.
2. Modify verbs carefully.
Stay away from both weak and overly dramatic modifers. The weak ones include “very,” “pretty,” and “really.” The overly dramatic ones run the gamut from cozy words like “safely” and “efficiently” to agitators like “threateningly” and “consequently.” If it ends in “ly,” chances are you can delete it without affecting your copy. Let your verbs and nouns do the work without help from spotters, to keep with our gym metaphor. If you choose your verbs and nouns correctly, they shouldn’t need a lot of help.
3. Use short, concrete words.
This goes back to where we started. I’m not saying that you should write your entire Web site using one-syllable words, though it’s an interesting exercise. But you should be able to replace jargon or academic language with something more accessible and meaningful to a wide audience. Check out PlainLanguage.gov for a list of shorter, concrete counterparts to the ten- and twenty-dollar words.
Of course, you can veer from the principles to play with style and tone and voice. That’s the fun part of being a writer. Just make sure you break the rules for good, not evil. Now, I need to go back through this post and delete 100 words… 🙂